On his first full day in office in January, President Donald Trump put the news media on notice: A new sheriff was in town.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump said. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
Other members of the Trump administration also lashed out. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, clashed with reporters during his first press briefing. Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, called the media “the opposition party” and suggested the press should “keep its mouth shut.”
Trump has had an ongoing battle with the mainstream media. He says traditional media institutions, such as newspapers and TV news, have a liberal bias and treat him unfairly. During his campaign, Trump allied himself with conservative alternative media outlets. One is Breitbart, formerly run by Bannon, which many media experts say publishes misleading and unsubstantiated information.
Mainstream reporters and commentators have pushed back at the combative tone of the new administration. They say they are treating Trump with the same level of scrutiny as any other president or public figure.
In some ways, the face-off between a president and the media that cover the White House isn’t new. The role of the press as a check on government power has long been integral to American democracy, going back to the Founding Fathers.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
When relations are running smoothly, according to Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, presidents and the media recognize that they both benefit from cooperation.
“Presidents need the media to get their message out,” Feldstein says. “The media needs the president for supplying the information that’s newsworthy.”
But from the nation’s beginning, the forces have clashed. The first U.S. newspapers were highly partisan—less interested in truthful reporting than in attacking political opponents, according to Louis Liebovich, a media historian at the University of Illinois.
“Their language was stark and personal if the president was from the party opposite of the newspaper’s allegiance,” Liebovich says.
Even George Washington felt the sting. The hero of the American Revolution and the first U.S. president (1789-97) was enraged by some newspapers’ accusations that he sought the power of a king.
During the presidency of Washington’s successor, John Adams (1797-1801), clashes with the press helped lead to Congress’s passage of the Alien and SeditionActs of 1798. The nation was dangerously close to war with France, and the acts were largely aimed at keeping foreign enemies from infiltrating the U.S. But they were also meant to stifle criticism of the government by limiting press freedoms.
The Alien and Sedition Acts didn’t last long, expiring by 1801. Still, they resulted in the arrest of dozens of newspaper publishers. And the fact that Adams backed this attack on civil liberties damaged the credibility of his presidency.